I’ve always been uncomfortable with being looked at. For me, being seen has very often meant being vulnerable. When I was a boy, and then a younger man, having my image fixed in a photograph meant having all my flaws on record, my scrawny bowed legs, my too-light skin, my odd betwixt-and-between hair available as evidence against the case I tried daily to make for myself, to disguise these features by way of optical illusion. But the baggy shirts and jeans in which I attempted to hide and the brims of caps under which I tried to shadow my face were useless against the sheer force of being looked at, truly and piercingly observed.
At the same time, however, I also have a certain terror of not being noticed. Or maybe what I fear, more accurately, is not being thought about. I don’t want to be the center of attention, because that feels like one step away from being ridiculed, but I don’t want to be entirely ignored, because that feels like one step removed from being dead and gone, forgotten. This collision of shame and ego is absurd, of course, but maybe the contradiction I’m alluding to is, first and foremost, eminently human.
When I first read Corregidora by Gayl Jones in the late 1990s, I was struck not only by its brilliant vernacular, its unflinching treatment of sex, its ambiguous blending of characters, and what the author refers to as its “ritualized dialogue,” but also by a paradox somewhat related to the one I’ve been describing, one located at the book’s very core. Published nearly forty-five years ago, edited by the great Toni Morrison, and lauded by the likes of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and John Updike, this brief but intense novel tells the story of Ursa, a Kentucky blues singer of Afro-Brazilian descent. Her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother have determined that it is the role of the women in their family to “make generations” and keep alive the history of slavery in Brazil (many records of which the government destroyed) and the sexual assault they experienced at the hands of Old Man Corregidora, a Portuguese “slave breeder and whoremonger.” Early in the novel, however, Ursa’s drunk and jealous husband, Mutt Thomas, physically confronts her outside the café where she works. She falls, suffers a miscarriage, and has to have her uterus removed.
With Ursa now unable to bear children, to “make generations” as the matriarchs of her family have instructed, the novel explores a crucial tension. On the one hand, there’s the need to bear witness to a history of violence and enslavement, to make sure the atrocity isn’t forgotten. On the other, there’s the fear of that history—the largeness of it—effacing your personal memories, repeating itself, and taking possession of your life and relationships. To keep the history in sight and mind is to risk withholding and surrendering your individual self. To assert your individuality, though, is to risk betraying your family and losing that which had always given your life a purpose.
During my most recent read of the novel this past summer, I was struck by different things. First, I became hyperaware of how many references to “eyes,” “looking,” and “seeing” there are. They absolutely fill the pages. Here’s one example from late in the book:
Seem like every time I look up, though, there’s Jim. Least once a week. He be looking at me, but he don’t bother me. He don’t bother me and I don’t bother him. Sometimes he be looking at me, though, like he’s studying me or something, but then I give him a hard look and he look away. I don’t ask him who he’s studying, I just give him that hard look.
In creative writing classes, instructors often teach that descriptions of looking—“he looked,” “she looked”—can become a tic and should, whenever possible, be eliminated. But in Corregidora, the intricate and repeated patterns of looking and, importantly, not looking become as important and eloquent as the spoken dialogue itself. It’s not surprising that a novel so concerned with the destruction and preservation of evidence would emphasize looking. One of Ursa’s love interests, Tadpole McCormick, refers to her by her initials, U. C. (read “you see”), and the reason her husband is so jealous is because he feels the men in the audience of the café where Ursa sings mess with her, “mess with they eyes,” he says.
Along with this emphasis on looking and seeing, I also found one extended section of the novel particularly absorbing when I read the book again. After divorcing Mutt and leaving Tadpole, Ursa goes to her hometown of Bracktown to visit her mother, in pursuit of what she calls the older woman’s “private memory.” She wants access to her mother’s “lived life, not the spoken one” about slavery in Brazil that also belongs to her grandmother and great grandmother. Before Mama shares her private story, which is about Ursa’s father, Martin, we get another one of those passages full of looking:
I looked away from her for a moment and then when I looked back at her she was looking at me. It was a quiet look. It was as if she were waiting for me to make her talk. I just kept looking at her, hoping that what was in my look would make her . . . I wanted to ask her if their past could really have had so much to do with her own, but I just kept watching her. I wanted my eyes to say it. Some things I had to let my eyes say.
Mama reveals the story of Martin for the first time, but even then Ursa tells us, “I wanted to ask about her now, how lonely was she. She’d told me about then, but what about now.” Then, at the very end of the section, Ursa says, “I was thinking that now that Mama had gotten it all out, her own memory—at least to me anyway—maybe she and some man . . . But then, I was thinking, what had I done about my own life?”
What seems to be at stake here, among the many things at stake in this novel, is privacy. Privacy that is neither the absence of presence nor the denial of history or responsibility. Even as we reckon with the abuses and atrocities of the past, and the way they persist and become cyclical, forcing us to play certain predetermined roles, we should make room for our own experiences and memories and we should honor them. The circle we draw around the things that belong to us and the choices we make to allow people into that circle and become intimate with us describe our privacy. Ursa’s access to and recognition of her mother’s privacy allow her, in the novel’s final sections, to more fully explore her own.
Reading Jones’s novel this time has made me reflect more on my desire to be both seen and unseen. At this moment, in this country, we are in the midst of what some are calling a post-truth era. The president lies, as other presidents have before, but with authoritarian frequency, which is another way of saying that the record is again, more aggressively it seems, being falsified. The proper response, of course, is to resist, to make ourselves and the truth seen, to work so that justice is done. As we organize and protest and make art toward this end, however, we should each attend to privacy, our own as well as that of others. We can stand up and shout the truth about what has happened and is still happening to us as a people, but we need not neglect the truth of our kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms, or the truth within our individual minds. These realms aren’t opposed to each other, and the choice between official lies and official truth is a false one, I think. Like Ursa, we reserve the right to look or not look, to be seen in the largest historical sense or, when necessary, to remain out of sight.
Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories and is a 2018-2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.